The Hows and Whys of a Cool Logo

Accounting firm owners, like many small business owners, spend countless hours, and more than a few hard-earned dollars, obsessing about their first impressions. They wonder how their customers see them. Does their firm come across as trustworthy, honest, and professional? Do they project the right level of authority and experience? And does their website really reflect what they have to offer?

But when it comes to their true first impression…their firm logo and the branding promise it represents…many accountants, either through a lack of marketing savvy and funds, or simple oversight, often settle for a lackluster look.

That can be a critical misstep for any small business, accounting firms included, small business marketing expert Dan Antonelli says, because when an organization overlooks, or perhaps under-looks its logo, it is glossing over the single most important element of their organization's branding strategy.

"In my experience, a logo sets the stage for all of your strategic messaging," says Antonelli. "A logo is not just an equal part of a brand, like most experts would like you to believe. Like a bicycle wheel with many spokes, your branding spokes need to be connected to one central hub. Think of your logo as the hub for your brand and all other iterations of your brand promise."

So how can accountants, a detail-oriented group more familiar with numerical, rather than visual concepts, be expected to develop a single, abstract image that embodies their entire professional promise?

Antonelli, CEO and creative director of Graphic D-Signs Inc., an award-winning branding agency that works exclusively with small and mid-size businesses, recently sat down with AccountingWEB to discuss how accountants can create a logo that will stand out from the competition and deliver on their firm's brand. (Several examples of his logos appear in this article.)

AccountingWEB: For many small to mid-sized businesses, developing a logo might be far down on their "to do" list, but you say the right logo is critical to their success. Why is a company's logo is so important, even in a "numbers field" like accounting?

Antonelli: First impressions are crucial for any business, and for most people, the first impression is derived from the branding of a business. The logo plays a crucial role in how their business is sized up by someone who knows nothing about them. That's what I call the "Brand Promise." It's what a consumer perceives their expected experience to be when doing business with your firm.

AccountingWEB: Why is an identifiable brand a small business's biggest asset? And how do logos illustrate a brand promise to build profit?

Antonelli: Most small businesses have a neutral or negative brand promise, because their branding is something not high on the priority list and often ignored. So the consumer, who has sized you up based on their first impression, initially has a neutral or negative impression, and, therefore, the same expected deliverable from you. Now you have to work to overcome that poor first impression. You immediately start the conversation on the defensive. But what would happen if all the touch points of your branding were coordinated, and delivering a brand promise that spoke to your firm's expertise, experience and professionalism?

AccountingWEB: What are the top five qualities you look for in a great logo?

Antonelli: A great logo should:

  • Use original artwork. Never use clip art for your branding as any other company can use the same art.
  • Contain a unique identifiable element. Use a component of your brand that you can use as a thematic design element throughout all your marketing.
  • Avoid the obvious. Don't use ideas or concepts that every firm in your industry uses. It causes your brand to blend in, instead of standing out.
  • Be simple and easy to discern; non-generic. The best logos are easy to reproduce and understand, and aren't swappable with another company,
  • Employ unique color schemes. Think outside the world of black and other safe colors. Colors play an important role in memorability. I don't mean use colors like purple and pink, but if everyone uses the same colors, it's harder to stand out.

AccountingWEB: What are some of the most common mistakes you see in logos?

Antonelli: "Nephew art" is a design term used for logos designed by non-professionals. Typically, designers hear from clients that their logo was created by their nephew, neighbor, a guy who's really good at Photoshop, etc. Well-meaning as they may be, most do not have the experience and expertise to understand how your logo needs to be implemented across all the mediums and how to build a positive brand promise. It's easy to spot some of these amateurish brands, and it's nearly impossible to build a brand with such a poor foundation.

In terms of the $99 logo or crowdsourced logos, just as it's not a wise choice for anyone to crowdsource their income tax returns to the lowest bidder online, the same holds true for finding someone to build your logo and brand. Lots of the mistakes people make with crowdsourced logos are expensive ones to learn, copyright infringement, being one of the most serious concerns. Some unscrupulous internet sites have had designs created overseas from "designers" that have stolen brands from existing companies, resulting in lawsuits or cease and desist orders.

AccountingWEB: What works, what doesn't and why?

Antonelli: Many of the professional firms we've rebranded have an amazing business delivering a great service. The problem for most, if judged on appearances, is that they didn't look like they did. The key is to match the brand promise with the actual deliverable. To get them to look the part, and look as good as what they provide. For some of the smaller players in a market with much larger companies, this becomes even more important.

We've had great success with some smaller firms with fewer than 10 employees: If you judged them by their website appearance alone, you would conclude they are just as large as their Fortune 500 competitors. How? Because we've branded their business, and the image they project speaks to a much larger presence.

AccountingWEB: Can you give us a specific example?

Antonelli: A logo like the design for SAS is simple yet it speaks to a larger, professional and established firm, putting them on par with some of the largest Fortune 500 companies who compete in the same space. So our objective here was to create a corporate brand that represents the high end and sophisticated nature of their business, and establishes them as a leading post-audit recovery firm.

AccountingWEB: I think it's probably safe to say most accounting firms try to strike a traditional, conservative note in their logos. How can they stand out from the crowd without coming across as too "avant-garde" or frivolous?

Antonelli: It's definitely a fine balance—especially in this space. If I'm a prospective customer, I want to feel like the firm is professional, honest, and trustworthy, and that it will be in business for a long time after I hire them. Ideally, I'd like to see a color scheme that's unique, but certainly not hot pink or purple.

And, of course, I don't want to see anything frivolous. Common or overused typefaces, inappropriate script fonts, or clip art symbols tell me the firm has taken the easy way out and isn't concerned with their image. Why should I feel like they'd take care of my needs with care, when they ignore their own?

AccountingWEB: How do you get started?

Antonelli: Finding the right team is the most important step in building a brand. You should look for:

  • Experience. It's probably obvious, but experience in building brands, and a large portfolio of work that showcases a firm's ability to not only design your new logo but implement across all the channels you need. Experience in your particular industry is also a plus.
  • Artwork. Make sure the artwork that is being is created is original artwork, and not clip art. This way you'll be able to get your logo trademarked once it's completed.
  • Communication. It's important that you have direct communications with the person or team who will be working on your new brand.
  • Staffing. Who does the work? Inquire about who will actually do the work. Ideally, it should be done in-house, and not outsourced.

AccountingWEB: What would you say to firm owners who say they have "no problems" with their logo why re-examine it?

Antonelli: You often hear owners say they are successful with their current brand, so why change it? We like to say, "Success in spite of a poor identity is not a valid reason to perpetuate it." Imagine how much more success you might have achieved with a great brand.

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